Injecting Safety and Profits into Pesticide and Herbicide Controls

Wind and rain largely dictate whether you can spray, and there is also the issue of proximity to buildings when you spray. With tree or soil injection, you do not have those hurdles, says Rainbow Treecare’s Joel Spies. “If it’s windy, for example, you still inject.” Rainbow’s plugless Q-Connect tree-injection system, shown here, is designed to minimize tree wounding and to deliver the product directly to the vascular system of the tree. Photo courtesy of Rainbow Treecare Scientific Advancements.

The concept of injection of plantcare materials directly into trees has been around for two generations and continues to grow in popularity – and acceptance – as a weapon in the fight against disease and insect pests as well as a tool for the introduction of essential nutrients. The benefits touted for this practice – call them the “Five E’s” – include efficacy (the ability to produce desired results), efficiency (limited use of materials), ease of use, environmental stewardship and economy.

The two E’s we’ll focus on in this article are environmental stewardship, which includes safety, and economy, to which we’ll add a “P” for profitability.

While at the surface one might think that health-care injection for trees is a relatively new procedure, that’s not the case. The concept first popped into the head of J. J. Mauget, founder of California-based Mauget Company, while he was undergoing IV (intravenous) treatment in a hospital in 1948 following surgery, according to Jack Rikess, Mauget’s marketing director. It was serendipity that his hospital roommate was a tree care professional, says Rikess, adding that Mauget mused that if an IV worked for people, why not for trees? The tree care guy said it should, and a decade later, this new part of the tree care industry was born, at least in its modern mode. (There is evidence of injecting tree trunks going back 500 years, according to the Mauget website.)

Rikess says the concept is based on investments in science technology, yet is simple and effective. With Mauget’s system, “you drill three-quarter-inch-deep holes in the tree anywhere from ground level up to about your waist and put a feeder tube in each hole. Then you attach the capsules containing antibiotics, pesticides, fungicides or nutrition – anything a stressed tree needs to come back to wellness or to stay healthy. Once you break the seal of the capsule on the feeder tube, the tree takes up the product. I think one of the most amazing things about these products is that they are drawn up naturally by the tree due to transpiration,” he adds, noting that this is over a relatively brief time period, perhaps several minutes to two hours.

It is important to note of injection that, “this is a closed system. The treatments stay in the tree. The point that we do not spray is huge,” says Rikess, who contends that, “Spray can get into groundwater, animals and insects and be introduced to the ecosystem and food chain.”

Injection, Rikess and other purveyors of the process state unequivocally, not only goes directly into a tree’s system and stays there, helping the plant and the environment, but it also is operator friendly. “The most protective clothing an applicator would need would be plastic gloves and eye protection, and the only tool needed is a portable drill and drill bit. You work at ground level and use no ladders,” he says, noting that training and licensing is required.

“You can use our injection system around people and put it in a tree, and people won’t notice.” Without naming names, Rikess says the Mauget system is used exclusively at a large amusement park in Southern California, and there’s no need for bright-yellow caution tape. Elaborating on the unobtrusiveness of the system, he says, “Depending on the size of a tree, you might have up to eight or nine capsules forming what looks like a necklace.”

The Arborjet injection process involves tapping the tree and installing a rubber septum, which the injection needle pierces, sending control chemicals into the tree’s vascular system. Shown is the company’s Quickjet Air applicator. Photo courtesy of Arborjet.

Rikess says that environmentalism has been a driving force of the company since its inception. In the company’s formative years, he notes, J. J. Mauget connected with another like-minded innovator, Dale Dodds, who was delivering the formula Mauget needed. They became partners in the early 1960s.

“What differentiates Mauget is its science, the formulas,” Rikess maintains. “Since we’ve been around more than 60 years, it’s safe to say our formulas and our delivery system are effective, otherwise we’d have been found out by now.” Rikess adds that injection products must be approved by the federal government.

He is also of the opinion that injection helps off set environmental issues. “After a heavy rain, we get gasoline, oils, chemicals from various sources, contaminants from animal droppings and other materials in flooded areas. So we need fungicides to get rid of molds, as well as antibiotics and fertilizers to help out the trees. It may take two or three applications, depending on the needs of a tree.

Tree injection is environmentally and operator friendly, says Mauget’s Jack Rikess. “The most protective clothing an applicator would need would be plastic gloves and eye protection, and the only tool needed is a portable drill and drill bit. You work at ground level and use no ladders.” Photo courtesy of Mauget.

“Cutting down a tree should be a last resort,” Rikess stresses.

There isn’t much that cannot be controlled or eradicated via injection, he notes.

When asked about the all-important topic of profitability, Rikess states that a $40 expenditure would result in a $150-to $300-per-tree invoice to the customer. “Certainly, tree health care represents recurring revenue, not a one-time job. That’s important, especially in cases where trees may need treatment one or two times a year at $250 to $300 each visit. It all depends on the tree,” he says.

Rob Gorden, director of urban forestry development for Massachusetts-based Arborjet, continues the story by stating that injection is part of the movement to “get environmentally focused.”

“Spraying has lost some favor in many areas of the U.S.,” he says, with the exclusion of the agricultural Midwest where people are not so concerned, because they see it all the time. “In urban areas, no one wants to see spray up in the air,” he maintains.

“When we came on the scene, we recognized that some injection types were too slow, not effective or could hurt some trees,” Gorden says, adding that to Arborjet, two things seemed problematic. “Either the equipment was not effective or some ingredients could hurt trees.

“So, using a formula chemist and a research team, we tried different chemistries and methods of injection and developed our own methodology, figuring out how not to hurt trees of any size. No one wants to see a tree struggling because you killed something else,” Gorden observes.

ArborSystems’ Wedgle in use. Tree injection avoids real and perceived issues that come with spraying, says Chip Doolittle. “Clients just assume that with spraying you are putting out Agent Orange or nuclear waste. Spray perception can be a problem,” Doolittle says. Photo courtesy of ArborSystems.

“What got us into the business was looking for a way to create effective systems that work, that actually kill pests,” Gorden says, citing Arborjet’s success in taking on emerald ash borer. “Now we have cities that can economically treat trees without having to cut them down. We pretty much save every tree we treat, and we re-treat only about every two years,” Gorden reports.

Other focuses now are on spotted lanternfly and Asian longhorn beetle, he adds. “We built the company on research, partnering with universities to address the need to not only solve these problems, but also to keep trees looking good.”

Gorden explains that the Arborjet process involves tapping the tree and installing a rubber septum, which the injection needle pierces, sending control chemicals into the tree’s vascular system, “flowing into the whole tree to get to borers and other pests and diseases we could not get to with a spray.” The tree bark seals over the plug seal in a year, he reports, resulting in reduced exposure of chemicals to the public.

Arborjet’s rubber septums. Photos courtesy of Arborjet.

One of the benefits, Gorden says, is “using small doses that are sealed from the environment until injected.

“In fact, I have not had a pesticide (spill) on me since I began teaching people how to use this system. You don’t have to wear a moon suit for protection,” says Gorden, “you just need gloves, eyewear and long sleeves.

“Most important, the product works. Gypsy moths went crazy two years ago where I live (New England). I injected 60 trees behind my property. Wherever I looked at living oak trees, 10% were in a state of defoliation, except the ones I injected. They all kept enough leaves to be protected. I felt like a doctor!

A grown-over injection site on a white oak one year after injection. Photo courtesy of Arborjet.

“Why would anyone in tree care want to get into this?” Gorden muses, and quips, “One of my favorite phrases is that our customers want to be tree physicians rather than morticians.”

And then there are the profits.

“Margins from doing tree injections are high, 60% to 70%,” he states. “And, by treating a tree over time, you walk away with more money versus cutting it down.” He figures that profitability from tree removal starts at 40%, but, with factoring in new equipment, it can fall to 5% over time.

In a typical example of the low capital cost to get into the tree-injection business, Gorden states, “The average cost to be involved is from $700 to $2,000 to completely outfit a company, depending on need. And at 60% to 70% margin, your investment is paid for in the first week or two,” he claims.

So, in his opinion, “Plant health care is becoming the most profitable part of the tree care business.”

Chip Doolittle, president of ArborSystems, says there are multiple methods of getting health-related chemicals to a tree.

“The first, of course, is to spray,” he states. “Spraying evolved just after the Second World War with the advent of hydraulic pumps, which allowed an arborist to use high pressure and volume to deliver chemicals. Tree care used this method for years, but there always were problems,” Doolittle maintains. “First, there is spray drift. Second, you may have to use three, four, perhaps five sprays to get the job done. If it rains, you have to respray. And the chemicals last only until sunlight breaks them down. With trunk injection, there is none of that, and the application will last the entire growing season or more.”

Then there’s the issue of public opinion. “Clients just assume that with spraying you are putting out Agent Orange or nuclear waste. Spray perception can be a problem,” Doolittle says. “And you cannot win that fight.

“Soil injection can be great,” he continues, “but, again, customers can be concerned about material migrating into aquifers. Also, there are techniques that spray directly onto a trunk, with chemicals directly absorbed, just like a nicotine patch works. But again, some customers are not keen on exterior spray.”

So, many go to trunk injection because it makes sense to put chemicals directly where the tree needs them and where they are not likely to do bad things to animals and people, Doolittle explains. “Injection allows you to use a targeted amount of material and therefore a small amount of product. Since the sun does not break it down, (being that the product is always inside the tree and not exposed to the environment), the product will last a long time, up to two years.

“We are not broadcasting material. We apply the product one time, versus spray, for example with gypsy moths, in which case one must spray several times.

“ArborSystems,” Doolittle explains, “does not drill trees.” Instead, he says, “We use a needle to apply, for example, just 120 milliliters or about 4 ounces of product, in some cases injecting it about every 4 inches around the circumference of the tree.”

To illustrate how little product is used, Doolittle says, “For the emerald ash borer, we may put in 1 or 2 milliliters of product every 4 inches around a tree’s circumference. Think of it. That’s 2 milliliters of a 4% product solution; 96% of that is carrier. Think about how small an amount of product that is.”

Doolittle says his company formulates its own products and manufactures its own equipment in Omaha, Nebraska.

Echoing the profitability message, Doolittle states that costs for a 12-inchdiameter tree would be about $4 per injection. That 12-inch tree would require nine injections for a product cost of $36, and markup would be five or six times the cost, with the process taking minutes – as few as five minutes per tree, he says. “You should be able to pay off your equipment easily in the first week and most likely on your first half day.”

ArborSystems’ Chip Doolittle demonstrates use of the company’s EZ-Ject soil injector. Photo courtesy of ArborSystems.

James Scarlata, owner of Tree Defend injection tools out of Manistee, Michigan, touts the safety aspect of injection. “An applicator using an injector will want to wear protective equipment for the eyes because the material is applied under pressure,” he explains, “and wear gloves because the materials are concentrated. But you do not need a respirator, since there is little chance of inhaling mist. Check the pesticide label for additional requirements.”

He repeats the point that customers prefer injectables because there is less chance for environmental contamination. “You can treat a tree even if it is next to a body of water or other sensitive area because there is no chance of spray drift that can result in water contamination.”

A Tree Defend hookup on a birch tree. “An applicator using an injector should use eye protection and gloves, but doesn’t need a respirator, since there is little chance of inhaling mist,” says James Scarlata. But be sure to check the pesticide label for additional requirements, he warns. Photo courtesy of Tree Defend.

More important, Scarlata adds, “The big reason is that the material is put in directly and is distributed throughout the whole tree, where it is most effective in combating boring insects already in the tree as well as systemic diseases such as Dutch elm disease and oak wilt. With injection, you are putting the treatment right where the problem is.”

Affiliated with the company is a separate tree care business. “We do a lot of business by injection, but there are circumstances where spraying is the better option,” Scarlata maintains. “We specialize in tree-disease work, so we are a tree and forest-health specialist, sort of an epidemiologist for trees.”

His company makes its own application/ injection equipment, he says. “One of the biggest challenges now is with oak wilt, mostly in the eastern U.S. It is difficult to contain once there is an infestation, and it is also difficult to get property owners to work together.” In a cautionary note, he warns it’s a case where one can successfully treat only healthy trees to keep the disease from spreading; infected ones need to be destroyed. “It’s preventative, not curative.”

Scarlata also has an interesting take on the cost versus value of injection. He says that costs can range from $10 to $14 per inch of diameter. “But then there’s the value of the tree. If it’s a yard tree, it’s worth a couple of thousand dollars. If it’s a forest tree, it’s not so much the value of a single tree, but the overall loss if disease spreads to the rest of the forest, resulting in its commercial loss. Once red oak is dead, its value goes way down – fast,” he states.

It’s important to look at drilling into a tree to inject material – or to soil injection, for that matter – as an option to spraying, says Joel Spies, vice president of Rainbow Treecare Scientific Advancements out of Minnetonka, Minnesota.

“The key thing to note is that what dictates application is not so much what you want to do, but what are the best protocols to solve the problem,” says Spies.

For example, he cites, “Some diseases or insects are limited by which product best controls them. Start with the problem and rely on tested solutions to get the result you want. Sometimes it can be products with the same ingredients, but with different applications you get different results. So it’s not necessarily the chemical, it is the application protocol that works best for what you want to treat,” Spies maintains. “For insects, you may want to do a spray for a contact kill, then follow with injection, perhaps a soil application, as a preventive measure against future infestation.

“One of the advantages of injection is that weather, wind and rain largely dictate whether you can spray,” Spies says, “and there is also the issue of proximity to buildings when you spray. With tree or soil applications, you do not have the same occupational hurdles. If it’s windy, for example, you still inject.”

He adds, “Injection is reasonably fast. With soil injection, you put holes around a tree and you can be done in five minutes. With trunk injection, the process may take 20 minutes to an hour, depending on the product you are using and the disease or pest you are treating for.

“Foliar spray can be done in 15 to 30 minutes, and although tree injection can be a bit more time consuming, it is a great tool for tree companies. In some cases,” he argues, “injection is the best solution. For example, for bacteria or fungus infections in a tree, in my opinion you need to inject product to get the desired results.”

In terms of a cost gradient, Spies says, “The cost of materials (excluding equipment) for chemical foliar spray typically is cheapest. Soil injection is in the middle, and injection (into the tree) will be the highest because it is more specialized.”

One thing he cited was the time it takes for the tree to take up its medicine.

A technician monitors the application systems until all ArborMectin is injected, which usually takes approximately one hour. Photo courtesy of Rotam Specialty Products.

“The speed goes down during the day as trees hold onto water and don’t transpire, so they do not take up product as fast,” he maintains. “It’s quicker in the morning, but there are variables like temperature and sun.”

In Spies’ opinion, “Spray can kill non-targeted pests, and tree injection can be costly. Wounding a tree can be undesirable. Soil injection results in less damage, requires low overhead and is fast. Right now, that is where I see companies targeting most of their work.”

In the opinion of Mike Blume, account manager for Rotam Specialty Products, with respect to controlling pests, “We recognized that two things were needed, getting more effective material to control pests, like the emerald ash borer, to the tree, and reducing exposure of the material to the environment and the applicator doing the work.”

Rotam is a Hong Kong-based, international company noted largely for crop protection, but it does offer one broad-spectrum injectable for trees called ArborMectin. The company says proper application is to the tree trunk and root flare, and control from one application can last up to two years. Blume says that one quart does about 15 trees.

“By injecting, you are not exposing product to the applicator or the environment and spray is not drifting down the street,” Blume maintains. “Because it is targeted to the pest, the product becomes a good environmental consideration.”

Rainbow Treecare’s HTI 2000 soil probe is designed so soil products can be delivered fast. Specific dosing with the HTI is designed for increased efficiency and minimizing waste. Photo courtesy of Rainbow Treecare Scientific Advancements.

He says the company does not make or supply injection systems. “There are a lot of different injection systems. Our product goes through all of them,” Blume maintains.

“ArborMectin has no agricultural application,” he adds. “It is used very specifically for maintaining mature ornamental trees and all pests that attack them. It is designed to maintain tree plant health. Plant health care … that’s the new buzzword.

“From now to midsummer is an ideal time for injection,” Blume says, adding that application takes less than an hour in peak conditions, when tree juices are flowing, and typically the rate of return on investment is double.

What’s the takeaway? Giving trees “a shot” can be safer than other control options, as well as a financial shot in the arm for your company.

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